In the visiting owners' box high above Veterans Stadium, the San Francisco 49ers' Eddie DeBartolo was watching a game that couldn't be won. Slightly more than eight minutes remained, and the Philadelphia Eagles were leading by 11 points. DeBartolo's quarterback, Joe Montana, had been sacked seven times. The Niners' running game had been held to eight yards. Their special teams had turned the ball over twice, leading to 14 Eagle points.
San Francisco could have been even further behind, and DeBartolo admired the way his guys, who were playing their third straight game in the eastern time zone, had hung in against such a strong, young team. DeBartolo turned to 49er executive vice-president Carmen Policy and said, "We'll lose, but our guys have so much character. I'm going to be proud to talk to them after the game."
A few minutes later, while standing in the north end zone, DeBartolo's eyes were misting as he watched another Montana Miracle unfold. "God, they're spunky. I love this team," said DeBartolo, his voice breaking, as the seconds ticked away on a 38-28 San Francisco win. Montana had thrown his fifth touchdown pass of the game to rally the Niners to their third consecutive victory away from home—and under a new coach, George Seifert, no less. "I'm prouder of them right now than I was at the Super Bowl," said DeBartolo.
Gush, Eddie, gush. Your guys deserve it. In a sport where long-term greatness is all but obsolete, the Niners are still going strong near the end of their decade of dominance. As for Montana, no one since George Blanda has played so well in so many fourth quarters.
In three of their last four wins, the 49ers have come from behind in the final four minutes. First came the 11-play, 92-yard drive that gave them a 20-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in last January's Super Bowl. Then, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second game of this season, San Francisco went 70 yards in 10 plays, scoring with 40 seconds left to win 20-16. On Sunday, after twice trailing by 11 points in the fourth quarter, Montana might have—let's emphasize "might have" to avoid sounding blasphemous—played the best quarter of his 11-year career.
Not counting the two plays in which he fell on the ball to run out the clock, the 49ers had the ball four times for a total of less than six minutes in the fourth quarter. In that time Montana completed 11 of 12 throws for 227 yards, including touchdown passes of 70, eight, 24 and 33 yards to wide receiver John Taylor, fullback Tom Rathman, tight end Brent Jones and wide receiver Jerry Rice, respectively. "You relish being in those situations," the happy but typically blasè Montana said afterward.
Philadelphia had thought it was pretty good at winning this kind of game until it met the experts. The week before, the Eagles had scored 21 fourth-quarter points to beat the Washington Redskins 42-37. Now the same thing had happened to them. "The difference between our fourth quarter last week and this one?" said Eagle quarterback Randall Cunningham. "Joe Montana."
For the game, Montana completed 25 of 34 passes for 428 yards. Cunningham had a good day too, throwing for 192 yards and eluding everyone in red. But it wasn't his best day. When San Francisco took a 31-28 lead with 3:17 remaining, Cunningham got a chance for another fabulous Philly finish. He threw to fullback Heath Sherman for 17 yards and ran for three more himself. Next, he tried a seven-yard flare-out to running back Keith Byars, but the ball bounced off Byars's hands and into the arms of Niner safety Ronnie Lott. Ball game.
"Damn it!" Cunningham said, his face twisted in frustration as he walked to the sideline. He threw his helmet. "Damn it!"
San Francisco's opponents often end up cursing themselves. The 49ers seem to be finishing the decade as strongly as they started it—they won their first of three Super Bowls after the '81 season—largely because they've turned over their roster well, despite drafting late through most of the '80s.
"It's a terrible thing to do, and I'd hate to have been [former coach] Bill Walsh or to be [general manager] John McVay," says DeBartolo. "But you've got to turn your team over. You've got to stay young. And we haven't let this team grow old."
The Niners are only the 19th-youngest team in the NFL—their 47 players average 27.02 years—but their 22 starters are younger than those of the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills, New Orleans Saints, Redskins and Los Angeles Rams. With the exception of Montana, the first-team offense has no one left from the '81 championship team. Yet the 49ers still have one of the most dangerous attacks in the game.
Among the starters on defense, only Lott remains from the '81 team; still, San Francisco has the league's fourth-rated defense. "Youth has always had its place here," says Keena Turner, a 10-year vet who now splits time at outside linebacker with Bill Romanowski. "It's not like a Pittsburgh Steeler team that was the same for eight or 10 years."
Now the 49ers are 3-0 with only five away games left. One of Walsh's enduring lessons was how to win on the road, and the Niners haven't forgotten it: They are 17-2 for their last 19 road games, with the two losses coming by a point each. Since '81, they have been a .650 home team and a .770 road team (page 82).
Talent, conditioning and attitude have obviously contributed to San Francisco's prowess on the road, but so has the way they travel, which is absolutely luxurious. The team usually flies on widebody jets; most players have two or three seats to themselves to stretch out. Each player receives the equivalent of three first-class meals on cross-country flights. Once on the ground, about 30 of the 45 active players get single rooms; some other NFL teams double up every player. "There is a certain specialness to how we travel," says Seifert, who was the Niners' defensive coordinator before he took over for Walsh. "It's conducive to winning."
Can San Francisco continue playing like this all year? "A minitradition has been established," said Seifert on Saturday. "We have to follow. It's what's expected of us."
"We're starting to remind me of 1984," said safety Jeff Fuller after Sunday's game, recalling the championship season in which the 49ers finished 18-1. "Every game we go into, I can't imagine us losing."
Montana (16) hooked up with Taylor (82) for a 36-yard gain on the go-ahead drive.
Cunningham eluded red jerseys all day, but Lott (below) intercepted him at the end.
[See caption above.]
Seifert says, "There's a specialness to how we travel that's conducive to winning."